Big Ideas, Delivered With Impact

The Elements of Indispensability

In Writing on June 8, 2009 at 5:37 pm

By Tim Beyers

Is it possible for writers to elevate their craft to the point of indispensability?

Source: Google image search

Source: Google image search

We discussed this from the reader’s perspective — the idea of indispensable content — during last week’s Editorchat, but we couldn’t agree. Freelancer Erik Sherman argues that indispensability varies by audience. For example, a reader facing foreclosure might find a piece about a specific house-saving strategy indispensable and a great article about grilling merely enjoyable.

This is a fair point from a must-follow blogging writer. And yet I wonder: Isn’t any piece of writing that gets you paid indispensable to the someone who paid you for it? We call these people editors, and their job is to be both reader advocates (i.e., seek and publish indispensable content) and publisher advocates (i.e., keep costs under control).

Maybe the question of indispensability is best asked with these gatekeepers in mind. Can a writer become indispensable to an editor? I think so. But just as no two readers are alike, neither are any two editors alike. Thus, in seeking a definition for what makes an indispensable writer, I run the risk of making the same mistake I made during Editorchat. “Indispensable writer” could be as loosey-goosey a phrase as “indispensable content,” and just as useless.

But I doubt it, if only because the process of thinking about what qualities our editors consider to be indispensable forces us to think as they do. This is the key, I think. Being good matters; understanding what our editors need matters more.

So what do they need? Again, it varies by editor but experienced freelancers I know cite some general principles. For example, Louise Julig practices precision. “I try to make myself indispensable by pitching ideas perfect for their audience, always make deadline, and turn in clean copy.”

My Editorchat partner, Lydia Dishman, says that being ready to fill in an unexpected hole attracts future assignments. “I am always eager to assist [my editors] fill holes in their books at the eleventh hour,” she says. Both of these ideas are good.

Here are three strategies that I use that I talked about during my recent class for freelancers, sponsored by the Northern Colorado Writers.

1. Be available

Make it easy to reach you by committing to the technology your editors use. For me, that’s instant messaging but it can also be phone when I’m not at my Mac. Also, don’t make your editors guess when you’ll be available — keep consistent hours so that they know the best times to work on your stuff.

2. Be different

Staff writers are smart. Many are resourceful. Editors therefore expect the freelancers who query them to be smart and resourceful. But don’t you think they also expect more? I do. I think editors hire writers who offer something they and their in-house writers don’t. Examples include connections to unique sources, a deep understanding of an under-covered but important industry, or a unique take on something that matters to readers.

3. Be aware of how your editor is measured

Success for us as writers usually means a completed, accurate article, delivered on deadline and to word count specifications. These are all good things. Being complete, accurate and timely helps our editors to stay sane, but do these things also help them to earn more? Do they help their publication to succeed? To a degree, sure, but wouldn’t you say that reader engagement matters more? Perhaps it doesn’t. Either way, I long ago learned that it pays to care about how my work contributes to the livelihoods of those who make me look smarter than I am.

Finally, a caveat: Any writer who claims to be indispensable is either too full of himself (or herself) to be taken seriously, or lost in a literary alternate reality and about to eaten by Grumpy. (Come on, I can’t be the only one who remembers watching this live.)

No one likes to admit that they’re fungible but as writers, we are. Our choices are to bemoan this truth or address it head-on. I choose to face it, and my three strategies work for me. What works for you? Share your ideas in the comments box below.

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